Knowing Your Roots

Blog 19

Oh, the trials and tribulations of being a potato beetle in Wisconsin; as warm weather finally arrives and the Colorado potato beetles wake up from their long winter’s nap, what happens in their world?  Let’s look at it from the beetle’s point of view:

Must be spring, I’m feeling a glimmer from up there in the world, maybe a hint of warmth. Must be planting time, we had best get our abdomens in gear or we’ll miss those tasty first potato shoots.  I remember the folklore from when the ancestors were back in Colorado scrabbling to sniff out enough buffalo burr to scratch out a meal and raise a brood or two. They thought they had it hard, but that was nothing to what these Wisconsin farmers are throwing at us these days! Sure we have potatoes now—great food and lots of it, enough for all our brood—but it isn’t that easy. At first they hit us with all those insecticides, nasty but not a big deal; we just kicked- up the right immunity gene and now we are resistant.  But they don’t quit either and now there seems no end to the obstacles they come up with to keep us down.

First they won’t even let us sleep in the winter.  We were always snug under the pines, protected by a blanket of snow.  Then, in Coloma in the ‘90s, they plowed the snow in January for no reason than to see how we liked the cold.  Well, when the temperature drops from 32 to 22 degrees F overnight, we can’t survive. We lost a whole generation that night! Luckily a root saved a few of us, and we were able to rebuild.

Enough daydreaming, time to dig out, find a male, lay some eggs and enjoy the feast! It should be right over there next to last years, but wait, I can only just smell it, must be a quarter mile away this year. Why would the farmer do that? It’s too cold to fly and crawling will take weeks, I only have 6 legs for gosh sake! And if I crawl, I will have to remember to watch out for those black plastic canyons. I remember that disaster from last year. It takes a pretty evil farmer to put a deep ditch next to the feast.  Almost the whole clan crawled in, but then no-one could crawl out, almost lost everyone that year!  What a waste, 20 generations all lost on their way to the party…

But back to the present, I’m almost there but out of energy after that trek. I will have to reabsorb some eggs, just leave enough for one brood. Well I am here now along with the rest of the clan and these plants taste great, but why are there only a few rows? I sure hope this isn’t another of those traps to lure us in.  I remember the time when we were feasting on a few rows and that giant tornado (aka crop vacuum) sucked up just about everybody.  Only ones to survive were us smart ones who dropped to the dirt, maybe I’m just being paranoid. But what’s that roaring noise? Down to the dirt, quick, but it’s so hot and there are flames (a propane flamer?).  What’s next?  All I can do now is squeeze out an egg mass or two and see if I can hang on to see them hatch…..

Looks like I’ll make it, the eggs are about to hatch.  Oh no! Here comes one of those predators again (other bugs like to eat us, I guess we taste good) and he is eating every last egg.  We never had to worry about them when the farmers still used insecticides, while we built resistance; it killed them off every year.  But it’s a different story now; all these new attacks aimed at every part of our life cycle and the new chemistries that only kill us and let those nasty predators thrive.  It’s too much! Time to seek a simpler life, where are those nightshades? I don’t care if isn’t as good as potatoes and even if it helps the farmer, at least we will survive!

Does all this sound unlikely? On the contrary, as Colorado Potato Beetles (as we know them!) became increasingly resistant to conventional controls, the farmers of the Central Sands worked closely with UW researchers to understand everything about their ecology, biology and behavior.  By identifying the weak links, they have developed innovative ways to control populations. We know beetles don’t actually think in these terms, but the story illustrates some of the cultural controls actively employed by farmers in the Central Sands over the past two decades to reduce beetle numbers.  These have included: freezing, spatial rotation of crops, plastic trenches, trap crops, crop vacuums, propane flamers and conservation of predators. Deana Knuteson, who first demonstrated the potential for spatial rotations of just a quarter mile to reduce beetle infestation by over 80% and designed landscapes to limit beetle populations states, “one of the easiest methods to reduce beetles feeding in your field is to rotate long distances since they just can’t travel that far in the spring.  It may sound simple, but it is effective!”

Just another example of the innovative strategies growers use to manage their farms from pests to ensure an abundant, safe food supply for your family. (For more information, please visit:

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